A letter from Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops of the world, in which he explains the reasons he chose to lift the excommunications of the four bishops illicitly ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, including Bishop Richard Williamson, was officially made public this afternoon in Rome.
Addressing his brother bishops, Pope Benedict’s letter reads remarkably like a personal letter about an issue over which he has suffered greatly. He notes that some prelates and faithful reacted to the lifting of the bishops’ excommunication with an understanding of his desire as the Successor of Peter to achieve unity, but others "accused the Pope of wanting to turn back the clock to before the Council," and protested in a way that wounded the Church even more deeply.
"I therefore feel obliged to offer you, dear brothers, a word of clarification, which ought to help you understand the concerns which led me and the competent offices of the Holy See to take this step. In this way I hope to contribute to peace in the Church," the Pope says.
The Holy Father also explains how he did not know of Bishop Williamson’s views on the Holocaust before remitting his excommunication and that this caused the "discreet gesture of mercy towards four bishops ordained validly but not legitimately suddenly appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews…"
He also points out that the "gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council - steps which my own work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support."
Adapting the way that the Holy See relates to the new media was also noted. "I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news."
Mixed with his willingness to admit a weakness and improve upon it, is the Pope’s sadness at being turned upon by Catholics "who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility."
"Precisely for this reason, he writes, "I thank all the more our Jewish friends, who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust which - as in the days of Pope John Paul II - has also existed throughout my pontificate and, thank God, continues to exist."
Pope Benedict XVI also mentions another mistake, which he "deeply regrets," that was made in the process of remitting the four bishops’ excommunications: "the extent and limits of the provision of 21 January 2009 were not clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication."
Aiming to remedy that situation, the Pope clarifies, "the excommunication affects individuals, not institutions." Explaining that the excommunications by Pope John Paul II in 1988 had not had the desired effect of bringing about repentance and a return to unity, Benedict says that he lifted the excommunications to try another route of achieving unity. This was made possible by the bishops’ willingness to recognize in principle "the Pope and his authority as Pastor, albeit with some reservations in the area of obedience to his doctrinal authority and to the authority of the Council."
But Pope Benedict notes that there is a difference between individuals (the bishops) and institutions. "The remission of the excommunication was a measure taken in the field of ecclesiastical discipline: the individuals were freed from the burden of conscience constituted by the most serious of ecclesiastical penalties. This disciplinary level needs to be distinguished from the doctrinal level."
At the institutional level, the Pope explains that the St. Pius X Society does not have a canonical status, thus it is not yet in communion with the Church. " In order to make this clear once again: until the doctrinal questions are clarified, the society has no canonical status in the Church, and its ministers - even though they have been freed of the ecclesiastical penalty - do not legitimately exercise any ministry in the Church."
The letter also contains a very important Curial restructuring that the Pope says he decided to undertake as the St. Pius X Society grapples with accepting doctrinal issues, namely the teachings of Vatican II. Benedict XVI writes that he has decided to transfer the "Ecclesia Dei" Commission to the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "This will make it clear that the problems now to be addressed are essentially doctrinal in nature and concern primarily the acceptance of the Vatican Council II and the post-conciliar Magisterium of the Popes."
"The Church's teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 - this must be quite clear to the Society. But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life," he writes.
The Pope closes his letter by assessing the way that the world approaches those who have expressed disdain for the St. Pius X Society as well as his efforts to achieve unity and reconciliation.
"Certainly, for some time now, and once again on this specific occasion, we have heard from some representatives of that community many unpleasant things - arrogance and presumptuousness, an obsession with one-sided positions, etc. Yet to tell the truth, I must add that I have also received a number of touching testimonials of gratitude which clearly showed an openness of heart. But should not the great Church also allow herself to be generous in the knowledge of her great breadth, in the knowledge of the promise made to her? Should not we, as good educators, also be capable of overlooking various faults and making every effort to open up broader vistas? And should we not admit that some unpleasant things have also emerged in Church circles? At times one gets the impression that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown; which one can easily attack and hate. And should someone dare to approach them - in this case the Pope - he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint."
The full letter can be read by visiting: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/document.php?n=805